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Suicides, living conditions spark concern among Texas National Guard deployed at border

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(AUSTIN, Texas) — Members of the Texas National Guard deployed to the southern border under Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial immigration initiative, Operation Lone Star, are raising several concerns about their mission, including reports that some guardsmen have died in suspected suicides.

The Texas National Guard and the Department of Public Safety have been collaborating under Operation Lone Star to stem what they describe as the flow of undocumented immigrants coming across the southern border and to combat drug trafficking.

ABC News has spoken to three soldiers in the Guard who asked that their names not be used so they can talk freely about the issues they say are affecting morale among some of their fellow service members deployed to the border.

They say those problems have ranged from pay delays to poor housing arrangements and inadequate training to assist Border Patrol in apprehending immigrants. Some of the guardsmen who spoke to ABC News say word of the suspected suicides of four members of the National Guard since October has also prompted them to come forward. The concerns raised by these members of the Guard add to the mounting pressure the program has already faced from Democratic lawmakers and advocates who say the mission violates the rights of immigrants who should be given the opportunity to seek asylum in the United States without fear of being detained for weeks at a time.

In recent months, dozens of state lawmakers and members of Congress have called on the Department of Justice to investigate Operation Lone Star, citing concerns over civil rights violations and the reported suicides. In December 2021, the ACLU of Texas and other civil rights groups asked the DOJ to investigate the mission, which authorizes members of the National and state law enforcement agencies to detain or arrest migrants suspected of trespassing on private or state property. They cited alleged incidents of racial profiling and cases where migrants were lured onto private land so they could be arrested.

“What we found is that officials are targeting Black and brown migrants in arrests and are frequently luring them in situations in which they are unknowingly on private property without permission,” ACLU of Texas lawyer Kate Huddleston told ABC News in a previous interview. “In 70% of cases charges are being dropped but that’s only after people are spending weeks in jail.”

Abbott’s office pushed back against the criticism in a statement to ABC News.

“It comes as no surprise that Democrats who support President Biden’s reckless and dangerous open border policies disagree with Governor Abbott’s resolve to do the President’s job and actually try to secure the border,” said Nan Tolson, a spokesperson for Abbott. “Those legislators should listen to the complaints the Governor has heard during dozens of visits to border communities–complaints by constituents who are suffering the consequences of almost 2 million immigrants crossing the border illegally in the past 12 months.”

A mission that quickly expanded

Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021, dispatching Texas National Guard, Department of Public Safety officers and other state resources to control the rising number of immigrant crossings at the border.

In less than a year, the originally voluntary operation of about 500 National Guardsmen has escalated to a mandatory activation of over 10,000 troops.

Former enlisted senior adviser to the Texas National Guard, Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, said he believes four reported recent incidents of the unit’s soldiers dying by suicide, including one who served under his leadership a few years back, are directly tied to the rapid escalation and poor execution of the program.

“This should have been planned, this was just a knee-jerk reaction to get people out there and no one took into account the individual soldier and what their needs are,” Featherston said. “That’s a mistake because if you’re not taking care of the soldier he is going to be distracted and they’re not going to focus on the mission and that is what is happening now.”

Since he retired in November, Featherston has been advocating for guardsmen on the front lines of the mission. Soldiers he has spoken to have complained about a lack of cold weather gear and Individual First Aid Kits (IFAKS). Others have said that pay delays are putting a strain on their spouses who struggle to pay bills when they’re away on duty. Featherston says that military leaders have prioritized quick mobilization over the needs of each guardsman.

The Army Times was first to report on four suspected suicides of guardsmen who were serving or set to be deployed under Operation Lone Star.

ABC News has not been able to reach the families of the soldiers who died or confirm that all were connected to Operation Lone Star, but military documents describe the death of one soldier who was currently deployed under the operation as a “confirmed suicide.” Another soldier was found inside a vehicle with “an apparent gunshot wound to the head with his right hand still holding the firearm,” according to the documents.

Suicides draw concern

The military documents reviewed by ABC News show that one guardsman, Pfc. Joshua Cortez, submitted a hardship request to be relieved from duty. Cortez noted he had missed his first opportunity to get hired for a job when he was deployed on a previous mission, but was on his way to getting hired for this “lifetime job” at an insurance company.

He included additional documentation that indicated the company was moving forward with the hiring process and wanted to set up an interview.

His request was denied by two of three commanders who reviewed it, with one of them writing “Soldier can deploy. If offered a job then soldier can be given time for training.” The comment was dated on Nov. 4. Less than two days later, an incident report reviewed by ABC News showed Cortez shot himself in a parking lot.

The Texas Military Department, which has been collaborating with the Texas Department of Public Safety to deploy personnel and resources to the border has, cautioned against connecting the deaths to Operation Lone Star.

“There has been misleading and false information publicized without proper context or relevant information, irrespective of family sensitivity and desires,” Texas Military Department public affairs staff told ABC News in an email. “Two of the four service members publicized by media outlets were mobilized in support of Operation Lone Star. However, there is no evidence to support that their decisions were made as a result of Operation Lone Star… It would be irresponsible journalism at this point in time to tie these tragedies to Operation Lone Star, and to not respect the wishes of grieving family members.”

In late January, 50 Texas House Democrats signed a letter calling on the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to investigate and end Operation Lone Star. The letter said members of the Texas legislature had received an email from a soldier with concerns about the mission.

“Furthermore, on Dec. 24, 2021, Members of the Texas Legislature and of Congress received an anonymous email from a Soldier in the Texas Army expressing grave concerns with Operation Lone Star, including four reported deaths by suicide of Texas Guardsmen over the course of the operation,” lawmakers wrote.

“We should ignore the governor’s attempts to deflect responsibility for the deaths of Guardsmen whom he is using as political pawns and get to the bottom of the causes for these tragedies,” lawmakers wrote.

The DOJ declined to comment when asked by ABC News if they’ve responded to the calls for an investigation.

News of the suicides has shocked the military community. Some soldiers currently deployed under Operation Lone Star said the deaths should call attention to the stresses the mission is causing. One soldier told ABC News he knew one of the deceased members and acknowledged that while several factors often contribute to a suicide, being deployed at a moment’s notice is a major stressor.

“I do think that a lot of the stress is that they yanked people out from their lives,” he said.

Housing and pay concerns

One of the soldiers interviewed by ABC News said he was given less than a week to prepare for his deployment last fall, which he was told would last around 120 days. Once he arrived at his station, he was told his deployment would be extended to at least a year of mandatory service. Soldiers have been living for months in RVs that have been retrofitted to house several soldiers, raising concerns over COVID-19 exposure.

“This type of mission being in our backyards — you would think that you didn’t have to pack us like sardines, six to a trailer,” the soldier said.

Another soldier told ABC News, that although they’re used to living in different conditions when deployed, military leaders did not tell soldiers what to pack for. While some soldiers have been living in old hotels or rental homes, others have been sleeping in the RVs.

“They look like massive six-wheel trailers with slide outs that have two bathrooms and either between 12 and 20 beds,” he said. “So there was a lot of uncertainty — soldiers didn’t know where they were going to be living.”

In a statement titled “Setting the Record Straight on Operation Lone Star,” the Texas Military Department pushed back on what they called “inaccurate reports and social media posts” about issues related to living conditions and lack equipment.

“Our personnel are trained to operate and adapt in austere environments at home and abroad,” Col. Rita Holton, Texas Military Department’s public affairs officer said. “Commanders in the field have identified areas of improvement in regards to equipment and living conditions and are actively working with vendors and supply chains to execute those solutions.”

When soldiers leave their civilian lives behind, they also leave their jobs and rely on their National Guard salary. Yet some members of the National Guard ordered to the border have reported not receiving their paychecks on time or getting paid the wrong amounts during their deployment for this mission.

Another soldier ABC interviewed, said he has tried to help resolve some of the payroll issues lower-ranking soldiers have raised to him, but added that checks are still being sent to soldiers with the wrong amounts.

“I have multiple reports from my guys having pay issues and not being paid on time. Some of them are getting direct deposits and some of them are getting checks that are incorrect,” he said. “I have a single soldier who is making more than soldiers with dependents. Yeah, it’s just a pay fiasco.”

According to the statement released by the Texas Military Department, a new pay system for state active-duty missions was installed after the agency found issues with the former pay system following Hurricane Harvey. The agency said it was identifying and addressing gaps within the new system.

Every soldier ABC News spoke to said they did not feel they were being properly trained to help detain or arrest migrants.

“What are we out here for?” asked the guardsman who was dispatched to the border with less than a week to prepare. “There’s a whole bunch of better resources you could have used the money for instead of just throwing us out on these ranch roads just sitting there.”

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or worried about a friend or loved one, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 [TALK] for free, confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can also reach the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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